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Lyndon B. Johnson, “Peace Without Conquest,” April 7, 1965

Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.

Suggested Sequencing

  • Use this primary source to discuss President Johnson’s response to the public’s concern over U.S. involvement in Vietnam.


After the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson began to escalate the deployment of U.S. military forces to engage against North Vietnam. In February 1965, he ordered the start of Operation Rolling Thunder, a bombing campaign on North Vietnam that would grow over the next few years. Johnson hoped the bombing raids would demonstrate American commitment to its South Vietnamese ally. An increasing number of Americans expressed their disapproval of becoming involved in a war halfway around the world, and Johnson used the following speech to respond to these concerns and outline U.S. goals in Vietnam.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who gave this speech?
  2. Why was this speech given?

Vocabulary Text
Mr. Garland, Senator Brewster, Senator Tydings, Members of the congressional delegation, members of the faculty of Johns Hopkins, student body, my fellow Americans:
Last week 17 nations sent their views to some two dozen countries having an interest in southeast Asia. We are joining those 17 countries and stating our American policy tonight which we believe will contribute toward peace in this area of the world.
I have come here to review once again with my own people the views of the American Government.
Tonight Americans and Asians are dying for a world where each people may choose its own path to change.
This is the principle for which our ancestors fought in the valleys of Pennsylvania. It is the principle for which our sons fight tonight in the jungles of Viet-Nam.
Viet-Nam is far away from this quiet campus. We have no territory there, nor do we seek any. The war is dirty and brutal and difficult. And some 400 young men, born into an America that is bursting with opportunity and promise, have ended their lives on Viet-Nam’s steaming soil.
Why must we take this painful road?
hazard(v): to risk Why must this Nation hazard its ease, and its interest, and its power for the sake of a people so far away?
We fight because we must fight if we are to live in a world where every country can shape its own destiny. And only in such a world will our own freedom be finally secure.
infirmities(n): physical or mental weakness This kind of world will never be built by bombs or bullets. Yet the infirmities of man are such that force must often precede reason, and the waste of war, the works of peace.
We wish that this were not so. But we must deal with the world as it is, if it is ever to be as we wish.
serene(adj): calm The world as it is in Asia is not a serene or peaceful place.
The first reality is that North Viet-Nam has attacked the independent nation of South Viet-Nam. Its object is total conquest.
Of course, some of the people of South Viet-Nam are participating in attack on their own government. But trained men and supplies, orders and arms, flow in a constant stream from north to south. . . .
The confused nature of this conflict cannot mask the fact that it is the new face of an old enemy.
Over this war—and all Asia—is another reality: the deepening shadow of Communist China. The rulers in Hanoi are urged on by Peking. This is a regime which has destroyed freedom in Tibet, which has attacked India, and has been condemned by the United Nations for aggression in Korea. It is a nation which is helping the forces of violence in almost every continent. The contest in Viet-Nam is part of a wider pattern of aggressive purposes.
Why are these realities our concern? Why are we in South Viet-Nam ?
We are there because we have a promise to keep. Since 1954 every American President has offered support to the people of South Viet-Nam. We have helped to build, and we have helped to defend. Thus, over many years, we have made a national pledge to help South Viet-Nam defend its independence.
And I intend to keep that promise.
To dishonor that pledge, to abandon this small and brave nation to its enemies, and to the terror that must follow, would be an unforgivable wrong.
We are also there to strengthen world order. Around the globe, from Berlin to Thailand, are people whose well-being rests, in part, on the belief that they can count on us if they are attacked. To leave Viet-Nam to its fate would shake the confidence of all these people in the value of an American commitment and in the value of America’s word. The result would be increased unrest and instability, and even wider war.
We are also there because there are great stakes in the balance. Let no one think for a moment that retreat from Viet-Nam would bring an end to conflict. The battle would be renewed in one country and then another. The central lesson of our time is that the appetite of aggression is never satisfied. To withdraw from one battlefield means only to prepare for the next. We must say in southeast Asia—as we did in Europe—in the words of the Bible: “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.”
There are those who say that all our effort there will be futile—that China’s power is such that it is bound to dominate all southeast Asia. But there is no end to that argument until all of the nations of Asia are swallowed up.
There are those who wonder why we have a responsibility there. Well, we have it there for the same reason that we have a responsibility for the defense of Europe. World War II was fought in both Europe and Asia, and when it ended we found ourselves with continued responsibility for the defense of freedom.
Our objective is the independence of South Viet-Nam, and its freedom from attack. We want nothing for ourselves—only that the people of South Viet-Nam be allowed to guide their own country in their own way.
We will do everything necessary to reach that objective. And we will do only what is absolutely necessary.
In recent months attacks on South Viet-Nam were stepped up. Thus, it became necessary for us to increase our response and to make attacks by air. This is not a change of purpose. It is a change in what we believe that purpose requires.
We do this in order to slow down aggression.
We do this to increase the confidence of the brave people of South Viet-Nam who have bravely borne this brutal battle for so many years with so many casualties.
And we do this to convince the leaders of North Viet-Nam—and all who seek to share their conquest—of a very simple fact: We will not be defeated. We will not grow tired.
We will not withdraw, either openly or under the cloak of a meaningless agreement.
We know that air attacks alone will not accomplish all of these purposes. But it is our best and prayerful judgment that they are a necessary part of the surest road to peace.
We hope that peace will come swiftly. But that is in the hands of others besides ourselves. And we must be prepared for a long-continued conflict. It will require patience as well as bravery, the will to endure as well as the will to resist.
futile(adj): pointless I wish it were possible to convince others with words of what we now find it necessary to say with guns and planes: Armed hostility is futile. Our resources are equal to any challenge. Because we fight for values and we fight for principles, rather than territory or colonies, our patience and our determination are unending.
Once this is clear, then it should also be clear that the only path for reasonable men is the path of peaceful settlement.
Such peace demands an independent South Viet-Nam—securely guaranteed and able to shape its own relationships to all others—free from outside interference—tied to no alliance—a military base for no other country. . . .
bondage(n): slavery This war, like most wars, is filled with terrible irony. For what do the people of North Viet-Nam want? They want what their neighbors also desire: food for their hunger; health for their bodies; a chance to learn; progress for their country; and an end to the bondage of material misery. And they would find all these things far more readily in peaceful association with others than in the endless course of battle. . . .
We often say how impressive power is. But I do not find it impressive at all. The guns and the bombs, the rockets and the warships, are all symbols of human failure. They are necessary symbols. They protect what we cherish. But they are witness to human folly.
A dam built across a great river is impressive.
REA: Rural Electrification Act; a New Deal program that provided federal loans to install electrical centers in isolated areas of the United States In the countryside where I was born, and where I live, I have seen the night illuminated, and the kitchens warmed, and the homes heated, where once the cheerless night and the ceaseless cold held sway. And all this happened because electricity came to our area along the humming wires of the REA. Electrification of the countryside—yes, that, too, is impressive.
A rich harvest in a hungry land is impressive.
The sight of healthy children in a classroom is impressive.
These—not mighty arms—are the achievements which the American Nation believes to be impressive.
steadfast(adj): resolutely firm And, if we are steadfast, the time may come when all other nations will also find it so.
Every night before I turn out the lights to sleep I ask myself this question: Have I done everything that I can do to unite this country? Have I done everything I can to help unite the world, to try to bring peace and hope to all the peoples of the world? Have I done enough?
Ask yourselves that question in your homes—and in this hall tonight. Have we, each of us, all done all we could? Have we done enough?
We may well be living in the time foretold many years ago when it was said: “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.”
This generation of the world must choose: destroy or build, kill or aid, hate or understand.
We can do all these things on a scale never dreamed of before.
Well, we will choose life. In so doing we will prevail over the enemies within man, and over the natural enemies of all mankind.
To Dr. Eisenhower and Mr. Garland, and this great institution, Johns Hopkins, I thank you for this opportunity to convey my thoughts to you and to the American people.
Good night.

Comprehension Questions

  1. How does Johnson justify U.S. involvement in Vietnam?
  2. How does Johnson address the argument that a free world will not be built through war?
  3. Who did Johnson blame for encouraging North Vietnam to attack South Vietnam?
  4. What effect would Johnson’s reference to 1954 have on his audience?
  5. How does Johnson characterize the suggestion of pulling out of Vietnam?
  6. What would be the result of leaving Vietnam, according to Johnson? What Cold War policy does this describe?
  7. What is the objective of the United States in Vietnam?
  8. What three reasons does Johnson give to defend the air raids on North Vietnam?
  9. What did Johnson believe the people of North Vietnam wanted?
  10. What does Johnson do every night before going to bed? What effect does this have on his audience?
  11. Why will the United States prevail, according to Johnson? What do you think Johnson meant by the term “life”?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. In his Farewell Address upon leaving the office of the presidency, George Washington wrote, “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.” Do you agree more with his foreign policy philosophy or Johnson’s philosophy of supporting oppressed nations with military and economic aid? Support your answer with details.
  2. Compare Johnson’s foreign policy of revitalizing Vietnam with his domestic Great Society program. What similarities and differences exist between the two?

“Peace Without Conquest” speech